A participant in a Spanish lesson at the Kingsborough Houses senior center.

Photo by: Jarrett Murphy

A participant in a Spanish lesson at the Kingsborough Houses senior center.

Public housing in New York might not disappear in a fire sale. It might go unit by unit as NYCHA is starved of subsidies. “This is death by strangulation,” says NYCHA board member Margarita Lopez. “Do you know how you die by strangulation? Very slowly.”

Hopes for avoiding that fate rose when Barack Obama won the presidency. Obama’s position papers and the Democratic platform call for a restoration of the public housing operating subsidy. As Yonkers Municipal Housing Authority boss Joseph Shuldiner points out, the obstacle to public housing isn’t the cost, but ideology. What public housing needs, “is really a pittance,” he says. “This is less than a B-1 bomber. In the federal government, this is a rounding error. It’s a question of priorities.”

But the priorities in the New York City area are vastly different from those in the places most members of Congress represent. On a practical level, the demolition of public housing around the country has eroded the constituency that might press elected officials to fight to preserve it. New York now has 15 percent of all the public housing in the country. “New York City is becoming more and more different from every city in the country,” Apple says. “That makes it really more challenging in Washington because every other city in this country has actually demolished public housing, eliminated public housing and changed public housing. I actually just spent some time with the head of the Atlanta housing agency, and she was proud to announce that the last public housing in Atlanta had been demolished.”

Belief that public housing has been a failure is conventional wisdom even among liberals. That’s one reason the Manhattan Institute’s Julia Vitullo-Martin scoffs at the idea that the Democrats will ride to the rescue. “Remember when Clinton came into office? He had a Democratic House and Senate, and what did they do?” she asks. “They immediately dismantled whole sections of public housing.”

If the feds fail to step up, Albany can’t be depended on for help. The state has been steadily converting public housing outside of New York City to mixed-income projects that do not serve the poorest of the poor. Vito Lopez, the legislator from Brooklyn who heads the Assembly’s Housing Committee, doesn’t seem interested in asking Governor David Paterson for more. “Could the state give a little more? Maybe,” he says. “But it’s never going to address the pressing issue.” In fact, the $3.4 million subsidy that NYCHA won from the state last year is on Paterson’s list of possible cuts to close to state’s budget gap.

The Bloomberg administration is equally unlikely to pick up the slack. With the city cutting a class of police cadets, decreasing the staffing of firehouses and hiking taxes, public housing can’t expect to get more help. “NYCHA is always an agency that needs more money,” Bloomberg said as he announced 200 layoffs at NYCHA community centers in November. “We’ve invested an enormous amount in safety and facilities and cleanliness, and we’re not going to walk away from public housing.”

It is unclear what role Shaun Donovan, the former HPD commissioner who is Obama’s pick to head HUD, might play in rescuing public housing from his new federal post. Meanwhile, the city’s own housing policy is at a crossroads as a new commissioner takes over HPD and the search goes on for a permanent new NYCHA chairman (Ricardo Elías Morales took over temporarily when Tino Hernandez resigned in December).

Even if the White House and Congress did go to bat for public housing, housing historian Nicholas Dagen Bloom warns, “The problem is that long-term costs will continue to increase, and there will still be, from Washington, pressure to move public housing further away from a large government program” to something smaller-scale, involving private money and probably serving fewer people at the low-end of the income range.

Many contend that the secret to NYCHA’s success over the years has been its ability to resist turning public housing into a refuge only for the poorest of the poor. This made the projects easier to manage because the tenants had fewer needs, they paid more rent and they had more political standing. But while that achievement is laudable, the means to attain it have not always been pretty.

The tough criteria NYCHA used to screen tenants in the ‘30s locked out people who needed the housing most. The authority turned single mothers—and their kids—away in the ‘50s. In 1992, NYCHA signed a federal consent decree in which it promised to stop using tenant-placement methods that discriminated against blacks and Latinos who wanted to move into developments that were disproportionately white. As recently as 1999, an appeals court ruled that NYCHA’s efforts to give preference to working families would perpetuate the racial segregation of some of its projects and barred its use at several developments.

But that working-families policy is in place at most of NYCHA’s 343 projects. And because of it, a dramatic change is under way in who makes it into public housing.

NYCHA’s potential tenants are ranked on two waiting lists. One contains people who work, prioritizing those who make the most money: A working family of four with an income of $38,000 to $61,000, for example, receives top priority—they’re “W1.” Those who work but earn less are a lower priority. A second waiting list applies to people with specific needs, like crime witnesses who need a place to stay, domestic violence survivors and others. NYCHA alternates between the two lists to select applicants for vacant apartments.

From 2004 to 2008, the percentage of families placed in public housing that were designated as working families rose from 43 to 64 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of new tenants coming from “extremely poor” families—those making less than 30 percent of median income—decreased. As of late 2008, those extremely poor families made up 74 percent of the NYCHA waiting list. Not a single W1 family was waiting. But the W1 families—some of whom do not live below the federal poverty line—are still the ones NYCHA prioritizes. No one getting into public housing is well-off, “but priority attaches to how much money you have,” says Legal Aid Society attorney Judith Goldiner.

The shift has been most dramatic for homeless people. The mayor’s homelessness task force concluded in 2004 that “the extensive use of Section 8 and NYCHA housing for the rehousing of shelter residents contributes significantly to the demand for shelter”—in other words, the theory was, people enter shelters to get a better position in the line for housing assistance. So NYCHA stopped accepting direct referrals for public housing or Section 8 vouchers from the Department of Homeless Services. NYCHA then lowered the priority of homeless people on the waiting list. Since then, the number of homeless placed in housing has fallen more than half, from better than 2,000 in 2004 to around 900 in 2007. Meanwhile, homelessness hovers near record levels—in November, more families with children were in shelters than during any month over the past five years.

The argument for mixed-income developments—embraced by NYCHA from its early days and enshrined in the federal Hope VI program—has undeniable appeal. NYCHA residents are often the first to resist the very poorest becoming their neighbors. “They have personal problems,” says Loretta Masterson, who has lived in the Bronx’s Sack Wern Houses since 1967. “Unfortunately for us, some of them have no idea how to live with people. People can’t stay in their home at night because [these tenants] are playing music too loud.”

And having moderate-income people—who are more likely to vote and belong to unions—in a building increases that community’s political clout. Yonkers’ Joe Shuldiner suspects the reason the Reagan administration restricted public housing to the poorest was that conservatives wanted to neutralize political support for the housing program. Geraldine Bellamy, who heads the resident association at NYCHA’s 1471 Watson Avenue development in the Bronx, sees the problem up close. “Low-income, a lot of them don’t care. They don’t care what goes on around them. They don’t get involved,” she says. “The only time is when a service is going to get cut. ‘Why they going to do that?’ Well, because you never showed up.”

But in the zero-sum environment of a city where public housing is scarce, income mixing has costs as well as benefits. For all it might gain NYCHA in stability and revenue, deprioritizing the poor and homeless means there will be people sleeping in the street—or in city shelters, which are really just a more expensive, less stable form of public housing—while others get public apartments. During the years when it has prioritized the homeless and poorest, Bloom says, NYCHA struggled—but it also provided a home to 70,000 people who might have had nowhere else to go.

There’s no denying that extremely poor people might need more services than others, whether they live in public housing or elsewhere. “We run a building in East Harlem that’s entirely populated by poor people exiting the shelter,” says Patrick Markee, the senior policy analyst at the Coalition for the Homeless. “We have a social worker. There are needs those people have. That’s not a rationale for denying needy people public housing.” It also doesn’t mean that very poor people who move into public housing don’t stabilize their lives, get jobs and become moderate-income people themselves.

The case for NYCHA to pursue a broad income mix among applicants used to persuade David Jones of the Community Service Society. But it doesn’t anymore. “New York has a problem now that is so systemic and deep, with poor people being further and further marginalized and paying huge amounts of their scarce dollars [for rent] despite the fact that they’re working very hard,” Jones says. With 267,000 people on NYCHA’s combined waiting lists and homelessness high, he adds, “experiments in mixed income would not be appropriate. This isn’t the time.”

Of course, NYCHA shouldn’t have to choose between providing housing to the struggling working class or to people with no place to live. But in an era of shrinking subsidies and rising costs, it has to make that choice. The needier the population NYCHA serves, the harder it is for NYCHA to survive. These days, the authority is focused on survival. “They’re put in the position where they have to prioritize residents who can pay more,” organizer Lisa Burriss says.

The Sunday after Election Day, Father John Powis walked up to the makeshift altar in a church basement in the midst of the Ingersoll-Whitman development in Fort Greene. Powis has worked among public housing residents for 50 years. Many of those in the “pews” live in Ingersoll; they knew all about the vacancies in their buildings and had seen the slow pace of renovation. They wondered how many people would return to those empty apartments and when. They wondered whether those newcomers would be people like them.

The main chapel in the Church of St. Michael and St. Edward is of f-limits because of structural problems, but the archdiocese lets Powis conduct one Mass in the basement every Sunday. It draws up to 80 people some weeks. This particular Sunday was a feast to commemorate the Lateran Basilica, a historic church in Rome. In the fluorescent-lit basement in the heart of partly empty housing development, as an electric guitar twanged out the hymns and a cheap folding screen served as the reredos behind the altar, one felt a long way from the Vatican. The reading, though, was oddly apropos to the setting in the midst of the projects, in a changing city.

It was about a temple. “Like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it,” the passage from I Corinthians read. “But each one must be careful how he builds upon it.”